Groups that Blow Up: One strategy for change

iStock_000000406659SmallThe recipe for most Pagan groups–and indeed, most small grassroots or activist groups–is, a strong personality with a vision comes forth, puts for the time, effort, and money to get a group started, and recruits (and sometimes strong-arms) friends and like-minded folks into making the effort of the group happen.

Over time, various kinds of volunteers become part of the grassroots organization. There are both unskilled/low motivation volunteers–people who want to help but aren’t sure how–and either highly skilled or highly motivated volunteers who want to get things done.

Usually the highly motivated folks, at some point, start feeling threatened by the power position of the original leader. They feel held back, feel like the original leader has too much power, and one or more of them may start to build a coalition to check the power–or remove–the original group leader.

They will usually build this coalition by gossiping behind the leader’s back. Some gossip doesn’t have this malicious intent, but still serves to grow unrest and polarize the group members against one another. 

The original group leader may have one of the following flaws:
Incredibly visionary but not a people person, or really motivated to get things done and willing to do the work but not good at delegating or mentoring others, or really strong and charismatic, but not really open to negative or constructive feedback, or really motivated and seeing the big picture, and frustrated by the folks who offer ideas but don’t volunteer, or who complain about how things are done.

They may also find themselves threatened by some of the backbiting, gossip, and complaints, and react in a way that only fuels the anger of the group members who are gossiping already, such as removing people out of hand, or setting up tighter controls.

Recipe for Conflagration
The combination of these things is a chemical reaction waiting to happen that will lead to a conflict that either leads to a large number of the volunteers walking away in frustration, the leader blowing up and leaving, the leader burning out or turning over leadership to the other group members, or the whole group blowing up in drama or just dissolving.

There is a way out of this particular set up, but it takes skills that most grassroots leaders  don’t have. Heck, I have some of this training, and I still have a hard time.

In an ideal world, every group that is starting (or crystallizing) goes through a process similar to this. These steps can help prevent the above-mentioned community “pickle.” If you haven’t started out with a process of creating group agreements, here’s a process you can engage with your group if you are finding that there are problems and negative group dynamics. It’s a process to address problems before they get out of hand.

It can still be a stressful session to facilitate, and it often helps to have a skilled facilitator who is a neutral party offer this for you and your group.

1. Begin with group agreements to establish safety
(I have standard ones I use, and I’ll do a blog post about those in the future). Do a round of check-in; get a sense of who is there as part of the group,  and what they’d like to get out of such training. You can learn a lot by hearing what people want to learn about.

If the group is really agitated and goes straight into checking in about all the things that are sucking, go with where the group is, but ultimately, it’s usually better to wait just a little bit before eliciting some of the negative feedback, and first getting to the goals of what people actually want out of the group.

2. Host a brainstorm session on, what do you want this group to do?
How do you want this group to function? The idea is to do a positive-focused brainstorm. Most groups will say the same things, “We want to get XYZ actions done, we want to have less meetings, we want less conflict.”

Trying to keep the language positive-focused (rephrasing “less conflict” as, “more time spent on actions”) can help. If the organization/group in question hasn’t already articulated a mission statement, creating that mission statement or “group magical intention-setting” statement can work very well to help energetically focus the group.

3. Brainstorm session on, what are some of the activities, behaviors, and processes going on in the group that don’t support that vision?
Try to get people to talk about the things that no one talks about. Or the things that they’ve been complaining and gossiping about but unwilling to communicate directly. Having a neutral party can bring these things out, much like partners in couples counseling feel like they can say things to the counselor they couldn’t say to their partner. Ideally some of the core conflicts will come out here, such as if someone is consistently disruptive in meetings, or if someone is micromanaging.

Often there will be a core conflict between a micromanaging visionary team leader, and team members who have dropped the ball or who are not pulling their fair share in the group.

4. Take a break.
Facilitators take some time to look at what’s been brought up, and structure the rest of the session to address the data you’ve gathered so far.

5. Return from break, and offer a set of tools to address some of the most common problems.
Given that the same issues tend to come up in groups like this, a session might go in the following order.

A. Communication Tools:
Offer some ways to communicate that can help people move from a place of emotion, assumption, and egotism, into a place of compassion and the ability to listen. Tools of Nonviolent Communication (resource: read the book, Nonviolent Communication) are useful here, as well as tools in helping people look at what their goals are in communication.

Modeling a dysfunctional communication example, and then a functional one, can help to illustrate things. The gist is, whatever tool set you teach, it should ultimately teach people to not have a hair-trigger reaction to their assumption of what someone else was saying, and give them a way to step back, evaluate, and address things from a calmer state of mind.

B. Group goals:
If you haven’t, as part of the process from earlier, actually crystallized a mission or intention statement, do that here. Also articulate specific goals the group wants to support that mission and intention.

C. Values:
This might be an exercise that happens before or after the goals. Brainstorm what the group values. What do you value? Ensure that everyone is on the same page, and if there are any discrepancies, address them.

D. Structure agreements together:
Brainstorm what physical and emotional agreements support the group’s values and goals. Alternately, you can do the communication training after this, to illustrate how an agreement works. If you have an agreement for healthy and nonviolent communication, a skills training demonstrating what that looks like is critical.

E. If you’re lucky, you have time enough to get through all the aforementioned processes:
However, it is important to schedule further group inservices to keep the momentum going. That might include closing by brainstorming on future meeting topics and times, such as skills training and mentoring in communication, or further clarifying group agreements. It’s also important to arrange for mediation between team members and group leaders who still find they have a conflict by the end of the day.

It’s also important to address the underlying issues of personal growth that cause most of these leadership and group problems in the first place.

It’s not possible to resolve everyone’s interpersonal conflicts in a day, nor to do therapy on everyone in the group. However, making people aware that our own Shadows are some of what is coming up can help, and then creating a plan of action as a group to work on personal growth and shadow issues. Some of that might better work with one on one conversations.

Normal Shadows and Personality Disorders
It can be difficult to tell if the uber-volunteer you have in your group is just really excited and motivated, or if they are subconsciously trying to gain your approval as the “mom/dad/parent/leader/authority” figure by getting praise for work they’ve done because they have Borderline Personality Disorder. Or worse, someone who has Narcissistic personality disorder and is trying to seize power in your group so that they can feel better about themselves.

It does happen, and it’s happened to me.

More commonly, it’s someone whose desire to serve community gets tangled up in their desire to be seen, to be the “good” one, or the “one with the good idea.” Those are normal wrestlings with our own egos, normal shadows we face.

Process and Attrition
Sometimes going through this process means that some of the folks will find that they don’t fit within the organization because they don’t support some of the goals, values, or agreements.

And, as much as it can be hard to lose team members when you’re already wondering how you’ll get the work done in the group, it’s better to have someone drop out now, rather than days before an event, or after they’ve dropped the ball on something they agreed to do, or after they’ve caused a major disruption in the group because ultimately, the group wasn’t a good fit for them.

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2 thoughts on “Groups that Blow Up: One strategy for change

  1. Wish more groups would read this information as it would avoid a lot of strife and also solitaires becoming fearful of groups as there are unfortunately too many who have tried groups and have had unfortunate experiences that have scarred us from ever wanting to practice with others.

  2. Excellent article Shauna! As a therapist for many years, I did lots of group therapy and facilitating. There is a great book about group dynamics called “Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy” by Irvin Yalom; it is the best book on the topic I’ve ever read and is standard part of any therapist training/education – I had to read it when I got my Master’s in Psychology. It names just about all the dynamics that might happen and ways for the group facilitator to handle it. I highly recommend it for anyone doing group facilitating.
    Shauna, I’m so glad you’re writing all these articles about leadership, group dynamics, etc. I don’t know anyone else who is doing this in the Pagan community on the deep, multifaceted levels you’re doing it. You go girl!!

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